Article Features Ritch Wells

Lessons in Disaster Management From Glendale

Looking back at 2005, government officials in California will no doubt reflect on the number of natural and manmade disasters nationwide that required some form of emergency response. In the Gulf Coast states, hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma caused extensive damage and challenged the resources of emergency responders. In California, government agencies coped with torrential rainstorms, floods, brush fires and fierce windstorms. In addition, Southern California emergency responders were confronted with the Metrolink train derailment that cost 11 people their lives.

These events remind us that government officials must be prepared for any and all events, whether they are fire, flood, earthquake, wind or manmade. California’s official and emergency response agencies will continually be faced with a variety of costly disasters.

Historically, the City of Glendale has considered disaster preparedness a high priority. City leaders supported the establishment of a designated Emergency Operations Center (EOC), training and equipment for emergency responders and, most recently, an application for federal funding through the Office of Homeland Security. The city is home to the Verdugo Dispatch Center, which serves Glendale and 10 other cities in both the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. In addition, a few years ago Glendale initiated a new Interagency Communications Interoperability System (ICIS) Joint Powers Authority. ICIS is a system whereby individual radio networks can interconnect and share resources to create a seamless, regional communications network (see “The Importance of Interagency Communications Operability”).

Train Wreck Tests Responders

In January 2005, Glendale emergency responders were put to the test. The first week of the month brought flooding and mudslides following several days of heavy rainfall. Neighborhoods were evacuated, key roads were washed out and closed, and several homes were “red tagged” by city emergency personnel. City officials estimated that initial damage to both public and private property exceeded $20 million. During the storms, the city activated its EOC to centralize emergency response efforts, document costs associated with the storm, and provide coordinated information to city leaders, the community and the media.

Little did city officials realize that the January storms would be merely a precursor for what was to become one of the most significant events in the city’s history — the Jan. 26, 2005, derailment of a Metrolink train on the Glendale-Los Angeles border.

At 6:06 a.m., a Metrolink train carrying hundreds of commuters collided with a vehicle abandoned on the tracks as it approached the Glendale station. The train derailed and a fire erupted at the point of collision. (The individual responsible was later identified, arrested and charged; the case is currently pending in the justice system.)

The first emergency unit was dispatched at 6:07 a.m. and arrived on the scene at 6:09. The fire was extinguished within 10 minutes. Meanwhile, a triage area was set up adjacent to the derailment, and emergency personnel began transporting injured passengers to a local medical facility at 6:22 a.m. Of the 129 people taken to the hospital for treatment, 101 were treated and released; 28 sustained injuries requiring more intensive medical care. Eleven people died.

The derailment response involved:

  • 100 Fire Department companies;
  • 59 ambulances and emergency vehicles;
  • 394 fire personnel;
  • 546 law enforcement personnel; and
  • 95 Metrolink, Union Pacific and contract employees.

The city also activated its Emergency Information Center (EIC) to disseminate information provided by the city’s public information officer. Staffed by members of the city’s Community Development and Housing Department, the EIC has proven to be a valuable tool during emergencies. The system allows staff to handle both telephone and walk-in inquiries in assigned shifts. More than 600 calls came in during the first 32 hours following the derailment, from immediate family members, friends and employers seeking information about passengers.

As the event progressed, the EIC transitioned into an Emergency Assistance Center (EAC) to provide information and assistance to families of the victims. Staff helped locate victims in hospitals, provided support to safety personnel in locating victims’ families and coordinated professional grief counseling. Information was also disseminated through the media to help people find their loved ones.

Preparing Proactively For Emergencies

While few cities will ever encounter an incident like the Metrolink derailment, city officials and local agency personnel should take the following steps to prepare for any emergency:

  • Make emergency response a priority.
  • Establish a designated EOC and practice activating it on a regular basis.
  • Annually update your emergency plan.
  • Conduct frequent exercises, including tabletop, evacuation and disaster preparedness.
  • Seek federal grant money for training purposes.
  • Establish relations with other agencies.
  • Develop methods to keep thorough records of events and their operations, as well as to document expenses for cost recovery and liability defense.
  • Stockpile needed equipment and identify sources for assistance.
  • Educate the public about self-reliance. People should have enough food and supplies on hand to last at least four days.

Practical Recommendations

During any type of emergency event, it’s essential to keep your elected officials informed. They are your policy-makers and should be updated and briefed on the latest developments. For example, depending on the magnitude of an event, elected officials will most likely be asked to declare a local state of emergency. In order to make such a decision, officials need to understand the challenges and complexities of the disaster. In addition, the community needs the reassurance of seeing local leaders responding quickly and effectively.

Elected leaders and staff involved with responding should also be careful about what is said and promises that are made. It’s important not to raise false expectations. When staff are involved, make sure that qualified personnel are selected for appropriate positions and ensure that they receive adequate training. Then let them do their jobs.

Communication is an integral part of any disaster response plan. Here are a few media outlets through which to disseminate emergency information:

  • Broadcast and print media;
  • Government/community access channels;
  • Website and links to other informational sites;
  • Low-watt radio channel (Travelers Information Station or TIS); and
  • An emergency information hotline.

When your community suffers a major event involving significant injuries or loss of life, sensitivity to the emotional impact on survivors, friends and families is essential. Memorial services, candlelight vigils and grief counseling can help ease the pain of victims, responders and their families and friends.

What to Expect Post-Disaster

Not only should preparations be made to handle the actual event, but plans should also be in place for post-disaster management. While each situation is different, there are some basic issues you can expect to arise following a major incident, including:

  • Business and neighborhood restoration;
  • Continued communication with the community;
  • Expectations that cannot be met; and
  • Litigation.

When facing tight budgets, it may be difficult for agencies to set aside substantial funding for disaster preparedness. However, that shouldn’t preclude agencies from updating emergency response plans, conducting tabletop exercises and continuing to educate the public about self-reliance. Time and time again, Mother Nature and manmade disasters have reminded us that there’s no such thing as too much preparation. Remember, it’s not a matter of whether your community will face a local or regional disaster — but when.   

The Importance of Interagency Communications Interoperability
by Don Wright

Don Wright is executive director of the Interagency Communications Interoperability System.

Every second counts in an emergency. Responding to the community’s daily needs as well as large-scale emergencies requires the coordinated efforts of not only Police and Fire Departments but also Public Works, Utilities, Parks and Recreation and other departments. As a regional network, the Interagency Communications Interoperability System (ICIS) enables greater cooperation between all those agencies, which results in faster service to people in need.

ICIS was developed when several cities in the Los Angeles area needed to replace aging radio communications systems. Each agency was considering what approach would be used to update and expand existing systems. In talking with one another, agency representatives decided that systems could be linked together as a network to provide a regional footprint shared by all rather than build systems that were dissimilar and operated as independent “islands.” When the current build-out is completed, the ICIS network will serve more than 1.3 million residents.

The cities of Torrance, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Montebello and Pomona have formed a joint powers authority to operate the system. Several other entities are utilizing the network as subscriber agencies. By bringing the assets from each agency to the network and allowing users to “roam” onto each other’s system, a much larger service area is available on a day-to-day basis. In addition, units participating in the system are compatible with each other by default because the technology is the same throughout the network.

A governance board consisting of representatives from each of the participating agencies sets policy for ICIS. The board is assisted by technical, operations and legislative committees composed of member agency staff, who bring their specific expertise to the project.

Ultimately, the participants believe this new system will prove to be invaluable, especially during a natural or manmade disaster requiring coordinated effort among multiple agencies.

This article appears in the February 2006 issue of Western City
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